I figured y’all might be getting tired of me writing technical articles about night vision and talking about business. So… let’s talk about the good old days! What do I mean by the good old days? Well, I got into the night vision business in 1994, and I will say without apology that it was much cooler than it is today. Not that there aren’t some amazing people out there now. I’m just saying that whereas today the industry is very professional on the top end and basically a bunch of airsofters on the bottom end, back then the people I met were crazy Vietnam vets who then went to work for the Agency or just went to work overseas. At one point, Saudi Arabia was paying helicopter pilots a grand a day, and that was when three grand would buy you a bitchin’ Camaro. These guys were nuts.
My first sale was for Gen 3 PVS-5s to a US Government Agency you all know but I can’t recall the name of… Gen 3 tubes were 36 lp/mm… and Colonel Bob over at Soldier of Fortune magazine was still banging out content that made Mack Bolan books look pedestrian. Then in 1999, I found out that Soldier of Fortune had a yearly convention. Well, I knew I had to hit that up. When I saw that the convention had a vendor area, I then had a legitimate business reason to be there.
This was no SHOT Show. Think Gun Show with more signage and lots of b-rate booth babes, and you’re getting close. There was a guy I’d seen at Crossroads of the West several times who always walked around in a tailored suit of colorful camouflage. I’d seen him in blue and red camo before. On this day he sported pink camo and a red beret. I wasn’t going to make fun of him to anyone around me, because, frankly, he still looked mean even in pink.
The show got started, and business was good. As I got ready to close out, Mike popped his head in again and said, “There are extra seats at the award banquet, and the Colonel doesn’t like empty chairs. Would you like a ticket?” I had no plans for that night other than abusing my liver (this was WAY before I stopped drinking), so I said, “Sure.”
I took my stuff up into the room and went exploring. It was pretty wild. Some of the folks had set up what may or may not have been a sanctioned knife fight at the pool area. They were stripped from the waist up and used rubber knives covered in lipstick to simulate cuts. It didn’t take long to realize that a good portion of these guys had hit the bottle already, that some of them could actually knife fight for real, and that they were all really hurting each other. It’s hard rubber, and it’s pointy, and some guy is trying to plant it in your carotid. What could possibly go wrong?
I rolled into dinner, handed my ticket to Mike (who was covering the door), and found my seat at a table full of men who averaged 30 years my senior. Some of the guys knew each other and I don’t remember all the details but some highlights included: The guy to my right who was a LRRP in Vietnam and had since soldiered professionally throughout Latin America. During the night it came together that he had never really left Uncle Sam’s payroll; it was all just a lot more casual these days. The guy to my left was a former Rhodesian SF guy (I don’t know if he was a Selous Scout or something else). He had bailed out of Rhodesia when it collapsed and gone to work for several professional armies in the region. From him, I learned that you have to give your men helmets if they’ll be operating with close support from a HIND gunship because the falling brass can knock a man out – or worse.
At one point the Rhodesian looked at me and pinned me to the seat with his eyes and said, “And why the hell are you here?” Pretty sure the music and all conversation in the room stopped for a moment. I just instinctively replied, “I make night vision.” He processed that for a moment and said, “Cool.” I was going to live, which was great, because I was starving.
Dinner was a legit rubber chicken. Best rubber chicken I ever had. The conversation was fascinating. Plus, I really was starving. It was good that I was hungry enough to go wolf pack on that dinner because everybody else was done eating in the time it took to count to ten mississippi.
Then it was time for Colonel Bob’s speech.
I’ll refresh your memory: it was September 1999. You’ll know why that’s important in a moment.
Col. Bob gets up on stage (I don’t think you can call him just Bob. It would be wrong). He waves at some familiar faces, and then he says, “I am so damn old…” In one voice, the entire room replies, “How old are ya Colonel Bob?” He then says, “I’m so old I remember when the Kennedys used to kill their women one at a time.”
The room stopped for a moment, and then came completely apart. I’m pretty sure some of those guys laughed so hard they popped their stitches. One guy looked like he may have dislodged his colostomy bag. The roaring went on well over a minute. The Colonel had the room, and he never lost it. Awards were given. War stories were told. There was magic in the air, along with cigar smoke and Old Spice. When you talk to a table full of men who have experienced ten times the adventure of mundane people, you really can feel like you’ve lived several lifetimes in an evening.
I have not had the opportunity to attend another banquet like this one. But if I ever do get the chance you can trust I will RSVP with an emphatic YES. If you ever get the chance, then I recommend you do the same.